Government Unions v. Everyone Else

By Larry Sand
January 10, 2017

“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.”

The above caveat about government unions – usually known by the kinder and gentler “public employee unions” – was not issued by ALEC,  the Koch Brothers, the National Right to Work Foundation, Donald Trump or Rebecca Friedrichs. The statement was made by none other than progressive icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The 32nd President understood that the very nature of government makes it impossible for its leaders to enter into negotiations with any union.

The difference between public and private organized workers is pretty basic. In the private sector, if a business is forced to pay its workers more money, those costs are passed on to the consumer. If the cost of a product is raised too high, the purchaser can choose to go elsewhere. Smart unions get this and realize they can’t bargain for excessive salaries and perks. The not-so-smart unions push things too far and ultimately price their members out of a job. An example of the latter is the United Auto Workers, whose ridiculous demands drove automakers to produce cars elsewhere, thus sending Detroit down the road to ruin.

But typically, consumers can’t shop elsewhere for government-provided services, as the government has a monopoly in certain spheres. During contract negotiations, elected political representatives sit across the table from their union counterparts who frequently get to choose whom they bargain with. When the two parties agree on exorbitant pay packages for cops, prison guards, firemen and teachers, what can the public do? Call a different fire department if their house is burning down? The exception here is that parents can opt out of public (government) schools. But unless there is a voucher system in place, only the well-to-do can afford to send their kids to a private school. In so doing, they must pay twice – state and local taxes which go to their local public school and tuition for the private one.

Not only are private and government unions different, their workers, in fact, are adversaries. Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute Dmitri Mehlhorn acknowledges this and takes it one step further, arguing, “The unionization of the public sector did not merely weaken private-sector unions; it directly harmed the well-being of the working poor. To see why, consider who pays the price of benefits and work rules collectively bargained by public unions. In 2000, when I lived in Los Angeles, the city’s bus drivers went on strike for 32 days. At that time, the average bus driver was making roughly $50,000 a year. While perhaps not generous, that was far more than the average bus rider, who earned just $15,000 a year.”

In Chicago, the average worker pulls in about $45,000 a year, whereas the median salary for a Chicago teacher – the highest paid in the country while working the fewest hours – is over $78,000 a year. This figure does not include their free high-end health insurance and bankruptcy-inducing pensions for which they have paid almost nothing toward for the last 37 years.

The public-private disparity is becoming more pronounced due to the lopsided unionization rates in each sector. The peak private-sector unionization rate was 35 percent during the mid-1950s, after a surge in labor organizing during the Great Depression and after World War II. But by 2015, the same sector had a membership rate of just 6.7 percent. Government union membership, on the other hand, currently has a much more robust rate of 35.2 percent.

Traditionally, Americans like unions. According to a Gallup Poll, 75 percent of Americans approved of them in the mid-1950s. But that favorability began to sag in the 1960s, and it’s been bouncing around the 55 percent mark ever since. As Mike Antonucci points out, the downturn began with the emergence of government unions. Granted, the causation is speculative, but there is nothing more definitive to go on. A poll asking private workers what they think about government unions would be quite instructive, but to the best of my knowledge, no such poll exists.

Donald Trump picked up a lot of union support from “Reagan Democrats” in Rust Belt states, helping him win the election over Hillary Clinton in November. Given the conservative political climate, several pertinent questions come to mind:

This past Saturday, Kentucky became the 27th state in the country to adopt a right-to-work law, thus freeing all workers from having to join a union. Will more states follow?

Will President Trump appoint a justice who would have been friendly to the Friedrichs case? If so, will that ensure victory for the Janus plaintiffs, thereby making the entire country right-to-work for government workers?

With 33 Republican governors in power, will one or more of them follow Scott Walker’s lead and push for Act 10-like legislation which limits collective bargaining and budget-busting perks for teachers and other government workers?

Will the Employee Rights Act finally get off the ground?

2017 could be a very interesting year for unions, workers and everyone else.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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